Backstage: Pajama Men are tirelessly inventive

December 18, 2012

To begin, the most obvious question: Why do the Pajama Men wear pajamas?

“The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One” is halfway through its run at Woolly Mammoth. It’s a mash-up of, among other things, impressions and marionettes and riffs and alien faces and character bits and time travel. Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez, the sleepwear-wearing-stars of the show’s title, perform in pajamas.

The answer, essentially, is that when Allen and Chavez were starting out on the comedy and improv circuits, people were wearing jeans. They were wearing T-shirts. They were wearing suits and ties. The one thing they weren’t wearing: pajamas.

“We didn’t want to look like every other sketch group out there,” Allen said.

The longtime best friends (they met in high school in Albuquerque) wanted to work in a different format, too. They weren’t so hot on sketch comedy in the traditional sense. “We always thought that a sketch was one joke taken too far,” Chavez said.

Mark Chavez, left, and Shenoah Allen perform sketch comedy as the Pajama Men. (Wes Naman)

In a lemons-into-lemonade twist, the improv desert that was their home town — “There’s no comedy scene in Albuquerque,” Chavez said — proved to be a liberating place for the duo to define their own sense of what was and wasn’t funny. “There was no influence, no role models,” Chavez said. “I think if we’d grown up in Chicago, I wonder if we would’ve, unintentionally, been more conformist.”

To create a show like the one they’re doing now, “we get into a room and improvise for weeks,” Chavez said. “And sometimes we sit down and talk about what we want to explore” — he mimes a Thinker pose, fingers on his chin — “and we find a way to relate these unrelated bits.”

The hardest scenes to write are those connective-tissue pieces, “because they didn’t come out of a joke,” Allen said. “We try to get the exposition out as painlessly as possible.” He would like to issue a disclaimer to audiences: “Sorry about the exposition!”

“Then we preview it really raw, and then open it with the knowledge that we’ll keep developing it,” Chavez said.

“We’re working on it still,” Allen said. “We just added a couple new musical elements to it.”

“It feels like nothing’s ever done,” Chavez said.

“We have to keep it new for ourselves,” Allen said. “It has to be kind of ever-changing. . . . We have to stay engaged in a meaningful way.”

Despite having been in the business for a while (they met in 1993, joined an improv company straight out of high school and have performed at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival several times) they both say they feel like they’re still getting the hang of this whole comedy thing.

“No matter how long I’ve been doing this, it’s never a sure-fire thing,” Allen said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out. From the inside, it always feels like an emotional roller coaster, day after day. I really enjoy it I love it. But if definitely feels like it can fail.”

“It should feel like it could fail,” Chavez said. “I think good comedy should feel that way.”

That being said, Allen added, “come to our show with an open mind.” Positive reviews, he said, can sometimes lure an audience into expecting some highbrow production. He would like to manage those expectations.

“It’s also very stupid, what we do,” Allen said. “Know that you’re coming to something dumb.”

Through Jan. 6, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net. 202-289-2443.

Olney extends ‘Cinderella’

For the second time and owing to popular demand, Olney Theatre Center is extending its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The show will now run through Jan. 13.

2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. olneytheatre. org. 301-924-3400.

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